Story or Stuff?

March 14, 2006 @ 11:43 am | Filed under: Books

In this article at Slate, Emily Bazelon postulates that girls read for story while boys read primarily for information.

The real appeal of Little House for many boys probably isn’t the narrative, but rather the precise and detailed descriptions of how to tap a maple tree for syrup or load a musket. Betsy-Tacy and All-of-a-Kind Family, too, are full of information about their worlds. According to Eden Ross Lipson, the author of The New York Times Parent’s Guide to the Best Books for Children, boys read on a need-to-know basis: To generalize wildly, “They don’t set out looking for story and relationship. They set out looking for information.”

I have to say I found this amusing, living as I do with a husband who is obsessed with Story (in prose, in film, in real life) and a ten-year-old girl who devours factoids like candy. Jane adores how-to books and trivia books and field guides and any kind of book loaded with information for her to file away in the vast database of her brain. (Case in point: her passion for All About Weeds, the book I referred to yesterday.) Don’t get me wrong, she enjoys a good story too (or a mediocre one, for that matter), but there is a special place in her heart for Books that Explain Stuff.

When Scott read Moby Dick, he skipped all the whaling how-to chapters. He just wanted to know what happened next.

Generalizations never work. (<— Except perhaps that one.) My guess would be that the reason boys, like girls, enjoy Little House in the Big Woods is because it’s a satisfying blend of appealing narrative and interesting “here’s how things were done in the olden days.” I was fascinated by all the bullet-making and hog-butchering explanations, too, the first couple of times I read Laura’s books.

Now, I do think many boys are particularly interested in discussions of gore and gunk—whether as part of a narrative or in a presentation-of-facts context. Nearly all of the fan mail I receive from boys for my Martha and Charlotte books makes specific mention of scenes with a high ick factor: when Martha gets cow dung on her clothes; when Auld Mary uses stale urine as a dye fixative; when Charlotte’s brother’s finger gets infected and is removed by tourniquet. But then, those scenes seem to rate equally high with girls, too. And really, weren’t we all nose-wrinklingly fascinated by the thought of Laura and Mary playing catch with an inflated pig’s bladder?

Here are some other bloggers who have comments on Bazelon’s theory:

The Crusty Curmudgeon
Big A little a
Roger Sutton

(On another subject: Roger’s post also addresses the recent Naomi Wolf article on the shallow, consumerist, promiscuous heroines of some contemporary young adult fiction. Amy Welborn had some interesting remarks on this subject as well.)


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